CLEVELAND: The University of Akron women’s basketball team began the journey last year. This year, the Zips arrived.
The Zips (23-9) capped a season filled with records by adding two that matter more — their first Mid-American Conference championship and first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
After losing in the final last season, the Zips returned to complete the job and beat Ball State 79-68 in the final of the MAC Tournament on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cardinals (18-16) entered the final with momentum courtesy of a four-game winning streak, including an upset of top-seeded Bowling Green.
Coach Jodi Kest confessed to having pre-game jitters.
“I was so nervous because I wanted it bad for them,” Kest said. “I wanted them to experience a championship, do the celebration, to do the Monday announcement. Those memories are going to last a lifetime.”
When asked whether it was everything she expected, she answered “absolutely.”
Senior forward Rachel Tecca (Archbishop Hoban) led the way for the Zips with 30 points, 20 coming in the second half, and also had 12 rebounds.
Tecca also was named Most Valuable Player and made the all-tournament team.
Junior forward Carly Young came off the bench to add 15 points, including three 3-pointers, and five rebounds.
Guard Brittany Carter led Ball State with 23 points and four rebounds. She was one of three Cardinals in double figures in a game they led briefly before the Zips slowly put things together then made it difficult for any type of comeback.
The Zips built an 11-point halftime lead. The Cardinals played with resiliency in the first half, but UA played with hunger in the second.
Kest said that it came from tasting it last season.
“It’s easier when you get there, I think, and come back the next year,” said Kest, who guided the Zips to a runner-up finish last season.
They translated that into domination in a couple of categories. Rebounding proved pivotal as the Zips won that battle 46-30, including 15-7 on the offensive end for 18 second-chance points.
“They just went and got rebounds and that became the story of the game,” Ball State coach Brady Sallee said.
It didn’t help that Ball State played its fifth game in six days, but Cardinals players said fatigue had little to do with their effort.
It was more a case of them not attacking early enough.
The Zips came out and looked to put Ball State away early in the second half.
A 23-9 run gave UA a 64-39 lead with 10:41 left in the game.
Sensing things slipping away, the Cardinals acquired a sense of urgency and went on a tear, cutting the lead to 73-63 with 4:05 left.
Kest had nerves prior to the game, but when Ball State made its run, she said that she wasn’t concerned.
“It wasn’t like we had five freshmen on the floor. We just told them composure,” she said. “We had timeouts. We’ve been here before and we’ll be OK and get the ball to Rachel.”
The victory assures the program’s first bid to the NCAA Tournament which begins March 22. The Zips will continue to blaze a trail with that appearance.
“I had a couple of kids talking about going to the [Sweet] 16 and some people may laugh at that because we’d never even won a MAC championship,” Kest said, “and now they’re talking about a Sweet 16, but those are the type of kids I have. They have great vision. So yes, [this win] was everything I expected and more.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.